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Building/Remodeling: Skimp or Splurge?

How to make the most of your remodeling or building budget.

By Lisa Truesdale

If you’re remodeling an existing home or building a new one, setting a budget is essential. Though you may be tempted to want the very best of everything, sometimes it’s just not necessary to splurge on high-end features. You can cut costs without cutting corners, and it’s easy to save a little in some areas if it means being able to spend more in others.

We asked local contractors, remodelers, architects and designers to help us devise a list of features and give us their expert opinions on whether you should “skimp” or “splurge” in those particular areas. Our experts include Jeff Hindman of Cottonwood Custom Builders; Tim Laughlin of Surround Architecture; Annette Parrish of Parrish Construction; Pete Petersen of Petersen Construction & Remodeling; and freelance remodeler Ken Stuntz.

They also gave us handy tips for keeping green-building practices in mind. Here is their advice.


windowFeature: Windows
Skimp or Splurge? Splurge

Why: Energy-efficient windows save on heating and cooling costs year-round, allowing you to recoup upfront costs quickly. When it’s time to sell, high-quality windows offer one of the highest returns on investment for home improvements, at 80 percent or greater.

Green Tip: Energy Star–rated products often qualify for tax credits and rebates. “Find midrange windows that meet the energy-efficient requirements,” Hindman says. “The most top-of-the-line windows are not usually worth the extra cost.”


carpetFeature: Carpet
Skimp or Splurge? Skimp (a little) on the carpet; Splurge on the pad.

Why: The plushest, most expensive carpet is nothing without a good carpet pad beneath it. The purpose of the pad is to help prevent shedding, wearing and matting of the carpet above it. Therefore, a high-quality pad can help extend the life of a mid-priced carpet and make it look and feel more expensive.

Don’t go too cheap, however, Hindman says, because “inexpensive carpet wears out much more quickly,” regardless of pad quality.

Green Tip: Do your research, Petersen advises, “because cheaper carpets and pads often contain formaldehyde resin glues that outgas into the home.”


Feature: Flooring
Skimp or Splurge? Skimp

Why: Says Parrish: “Vinyl or sheet goods are very durable, and they’re softer and warmer to stand on, and also less expensive than ceramic, porcelain or stone. Plus, there are some nice designs that look like the real thing.” But if you know you really don’t want vinyl, go ahead and splurge on what you do want, Laughlin advises, because floors are harder to upgrade later than many features.

If you really want wood, Stuntz and Parrish suggest going with a prefinished floor, rather than solid wood, which is more expensive and labor-intensive to install.

Green Tip: Choose flooring that is nontoxic, environmentally friendly and made from sustainably harvested, recycled or reclaimed sources.


Feature: Appliances
Skimp or Splurge? Splurge, but don’t buy more than you need.

Why: High-quality appliances save money in the long run, because you don’t have to replace them as often. Keep your floor plan in mind: “A quiet dishwasher might cost more, but it’s a blessing with an open floor plan,” Petersen says. Don’t spend more on fancy features you won’t need or use; you certainly don’t need a $5,000 professional range if you rarely cook.

Green Tip: A full freezer is more energy-efficient, so don’t splurge on the largest-capacity freezer space in a refrigerator if you don’t have a big family or don’t like to stock up.

Skimp or Splurge? Skimp, sort of

Why: Refacing or staining existing cabinets (and updating hardware) is much cheaper than purchasing new ones, and they can look just as good if done right. If you’re set on custom cabinets, Parrish suggests choosing a more simple door style. “Flat panel is much less expensive than an ornate raised panel,” she notes.

Green Tip: “If the cabinets are inefficient for storage but look fine the way they are, just repurpose the insides,” she adds. “Simply install pullouts, replace drawer boxes and add organizing inserts.

Feature: Paint
Skimp or Splurge?  Splurge

Why: “Resist the temptation” to buy cheap paint, Stuntz says, adding that it’s worth paying double or triple to get top-quality, oil-base satin interior paint from a name-brand paint store. “With the cheap stuff, you can see things like brush marks and different thicknesses,” he says. “The good stuff goes on more smoothly, and it looks like a beautiful, professional spray job when it dries.”

Green Tip: Always opt for zero- or low-VOC (volatile organic compound) formulas. VOCs can outgas into the home for several years and may cause headaches, allergic reactions, dizziness and worse.

Feature: Lighting
Skimp or Splurge? Splurge, especially in common areas and the master bedroom.

Why: Carefully planned lighting layers can change a room’s look, feel and function. (For more on choosing the right lighting for the job, see “Live in Rooms Full of Light” in the summer 2011 issue of Boulder County Home & Garden Magazine.) Energy-efficient bulbs like compact fluorescents and LEDs often cost more upfront, but you save in the long run because you’re not replacing them as often. Says Parrish: “The city and county of Boulder require a large percentage of the lights in your home to be CFLs or LEDs before they will pass you on a final inspection for projects that require a permit.”

If you’re tempted to repurpose vintage light fixtures you scored at auction, keep in mind that older items can have outdated or faulty wiring, which may lead to costly (or dangerous) problems down the road. If you’re set on using them, have a qualified electrician rewire them.

Green Tip: Recycle spent CFLs at McGuckin Hardware, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Eco-Cycle. (www.recycleabulb.com lists recycling options by ZIP code.)

Feature: Wood trim
Skimp or Splurge? Skimp

Why: Relatively inexpensive woods, like pine and poplar, can be easily stained or painted to emulate more expensive woods such as cherry and walnut. If the trim is in a non-traffic area, like crown molding, no one will ever know the difference—and most people won’t be able to tell if you also use this cost-cutting trick for baseboards, door trim or chair rails.

“Processed wood trim, MDF, is cheap and easy to cut,” Petersen says. “It also comes primed and ready to paint.” Hindman offers this handy tip: “Wood species’ prices can change, so it’s best to check on what is readily available at the time of your project and go from there.”

Green Tip: Tell the contractor you’d like Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood products for your project.


Feature: Labor/Contracting
Skimp or Splurge? Splurge, but the most expensive is not necessarily the best.

Why: Unless you’re an experienced DIY-er, you’ll want to find someone who really knows what they’re doing. “Without a very qualified general contractor and a detail-oriented project manager, a complicated remodel can go bad quickly,” Hindman cautions. “Always check references and go see finished projects.”

Ask around and meet with all your prospects until you find the right person for the job. Professionals know others in the business, and they can often purchase your supplies for you at a discount. Plus, they know how to save you costly mistakes that could more than make up for their fees.

When planning a project, consider the time of year. “Hire contractors in the off-season, when their rates might be a little lower,” Stuntz says. Keep in mind that some contractors specialize in areas like green building or kitchens and baths, which require different skills than building an addition or finishing a basement, Petersen says.

“Splurge in areas you’ll use the most and that have the best resale value—the kitchen and master suite, for example,” Hindman says.

Green Tip: Using someone local saves fossil fuels and money (they don’t have to charge for travel time). For a list of area home and garden professionals, visit www.homeandgardenmag.com and click on the “H&G Pros” tab.


Feature: Plumbing
Skimp or Splurge? Skimp on some things; splurge on others.

Why: The quickest way to blow your plumbing budget is to move fixtures, because running new plumbing lines is expensive. “So whenever possible leave them where they are,” Parrish says. Laughlin suggests splurging on features that are harder to upgrade later, like the bathtub, but says it’s OK to save a little on faucets, because they’re easy to replace. “Never go cheap on items that are not easily replaced,” Petersen suggests.

All the experts we spoke with agree that higher-priced faucets don’t necessarily perform better, so shop around. “A good-quality faucet doesn’t have to cost a fortune,” Parrish says, “so pay more attention to ease of use than to price or style.”

Green Tip: Make sure the fixtures you choose have replacement parts nearby, Petersen says. (Shopping locally is always the greener choice.)

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